Professor Anthony Carpi Named AAAS 2019 Fellow for His Work in Advancing Underrepresented Groups in STEM Professions

Professor Anthony Carpi Named AAAS 2019 Fellow for His Work in Advancing Underrepresented Groups in STEM Professions

Professor Anthony Carpi Named AAAS 2019 Fellow for His Work in Advancing Underrepresented Groups in STEM Professions

Anthony Carpi, Ph.D., John Jay’s Professor of Environmental Chemistry and Dean of Research, recently earned the lifetime distinction of becoming an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow, joining the ranks of distinguished scientists, mathematicians, and researchers, such as Thomas Edison, Margaret Mead, and our very own Provost Yi Li. Carpi, a first-generation college student himself, was recognized for his distinguished contributions to the public understanding and teaching of science as a process, and the advancement of students from underrepresented groups in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) professions. We sat down with Carpi to learn more about his hopes for STEM students and science education.

You’re being recognized for your educational contributions regarding the understanding and teaching of science to students from underrepresented groups in STEM professions. Why is this work so important to you?
I have always had an interest in helping people understand science. But when I came here, I really started to recognize some of the challenges with science education and also some of the disadvantages and barriers that our students face when they’re trying to go into STEM fields—the lack of role models, the lack of adequate high school preparation, and just outright discrimination in the field. Obviously, I do science work and I look at mercury chemistry and the environment. But since coming here, I’ve really developed what I consider a secondary line of research—looking at how to help students succeed in STEM and how to help underrepresented students facing these barriers. About 15 years ago, PRISM (Program for Research Initiatives in Science and Math) came out of this idea.

By encouraging underrepresented students in STEM classes and research, what impact do you hope to have on them, their communities, and even our country as a whole?

“On a national scale, I think we really underestimate the importance of diversity in the STEM fields.” —Anthony Carpi

The students we work with often have this passion within themselves already. We’re not igniting it, but supporting them in pursuing their passion. What I hope is that they move on to careers and jobs that they enjoy and feel productive at. I hope that they feel that they’re contributing to society.

Anthony Carpi

On a national scale, I think we really underestimate the importance of diversity in the STEM fields. The more we look at this, the more we recognize that people study the things that obviously interest them and the things that they have had exposure to. So when you only have majority scientists in the field, the perspective is limited. You end up with research that only focuses on outcomes in majority populations as opposed to minority populations. I had a student years ago from Jamaica. She was interested in studying traditional plants used for medicinal purposes because she remembered that when she would fall down, her grandmother wouldn’t put a Band-Aid on the wound, she’d go out, pick plants, and put them on it. These types of perspectives and interests are really needed in the field. And when you eliminate a huge sector of the population from doing science because of barriers put in place, you lose a lot of that opportunity for progress and advancement.

When it comes to teaching underrepresented groups STEM courses, what myths do you want to dispel?
I think science is often associated with old white men. I know when I was a kid, except for maybe Marie Curie and one or two other people, all the people in my science books were old white men. One of the myths that should be dispelled is that only certain populations can do science, and that only certain types of people have this proclivity to do science. Even in athletics it’s actually rare to find a natural athlete. Occasionally you get someone who seems to have this proclivity for math and investigation, but that’s not common. I’d like to bust this myth that science is only for some magically elite, narrow population. Anyone can do this.

What important takeaways do you want higher education professionals to know?
What I’ve learned is that you really have to try to meet the students where they are. There’s nothing inherently different about a student from an underrepresented population versus a student from a majority population. However, what’s different is the experiences they’ve had and the exposure they’ve had in the field—both good and bad. I’ve worked with some students from underrepresented populations who have had relatively positive experiences all the way through their education, and then I’ve worked with some who have persevered in spite of the barriers put in front of them. I try to approach things thinking about my students as individuals.

What would you say to a student to encourage them to continue on with STEM studies?
I’ve had students who are getting a lot of negative feedback from different directions. You have to help them understand that while unfortunately it’s not uncommon, they can succeed despite those challenges, and not every experience is going to be like that. That being said, we know that students of color, women, and other underrepresented groups face this a lot more than other students. So, I’m not downplaying the significance of those barriers. The important thing is to acknowledge that those issues are real, be welcoming, and talk to the student about what types of challenges they’re experiencing while helping them navigate those challenges.

It seems like you might have the “secret sauce” for helping underrepresented students advance in STEM fields. What are some of your next steps to increase gender and ethnic diversity in STEM programs?
Let me start out with the “secret sauce.” I think we’re maybe 60 percent there. There’s still a bunch of “ingredients” we don’t quite know. So, I wouldn’t say that I know the “secret sauce”—but I think we at least know what the “bad sauces” are. Myself and my colleagues who run PRISM are constantly engaged in discussions about how we can better serve our students, trying to figure out what’s next. For example, we’re hearing a lot from some of our graduates about feeling like they went from this really open, engaging environment at John Jay, to institutions at the graduate level that are, primarily white, less engaging, and less welcoming. We’re starting to think beyond preparing our students to get into graduate school, and thinking about how they should navigate those challenges if they experience them in graduate school.

I think the number one element that you need is an engaged faculty who are willing to understand some of the challenges our students face. That’s really important and not necessarily a given—especially in STEM. I remember one of my college professors many, many decades ago who never looked at us. He just looked at the chalkboard. Even when he turned around to the students, he’d look up at the ceiling. One of the really special things about John Jay is that we’ve built up a faculty in the sciences that are really engaged in supporting these specific students.

“One of the really special things about John Jay is that we’ve built up a faculty in the sciences that are really engaged in supporting these specific students.” —Anthony Carpi

Another part of the equation is resources. Many of our students are working full-time jobs outside of the College to make ends meet. I remember years ago, I went to a conference and I was presenting something about PRISM. I happened to say that we give students stipends. Somebody raised their hand and said, “You’re paying them to do research? Well that’s cheating!” I sat there open-mouthed, thinking, What the heck does that mean? Then I realized, he thinks I’m bribing or paying them off to do research, but I knew that I was providing our students with an opportunity. Giving them stipends alleviated some of the other stressors they faced, allowing them to participate. If I’m a person who’s in college and my parents are paying the full bill, I’d have no problem doing research for free. I could do all sorts of extracurricular activities because I don’t have anything to worry about. Our students are not those students.

Do you think it’s important for underrepresented students to see faculty members who look like them?
I think it’s critically important. If our student body saw all white male faculty members in the STEM department, it wouldn’t work or work nearly as well. It’s important that they have role models. That said, I don’t think it has to be a female faculty member working with a female student, or vice versa. When you get down to the specific mentor, it’s about their personality, their engagement, and their willingness to meet the students where they are.

When it comes to being proud of your STEM students, what’s your favorite student success story?
I have many, many student success stories that I’m very proud of. One that comes immediately to mind is Olivia Orta. She encountered a lot of the challenges that so many of our students face—from a single parent, lower-income household. She worked with me on a research project during her senior year, and she knew that she wanted to get a Ph.D. After Olivia graduated from John Jay, she got her master’s degree in public health from Hunter College and she also came back to John Jay to work on another research project, which we published a paper on. She then applied to, and was accepted to, the public health program at Harvard, and she graduated with a Ph.D. in epidemiology. It’s an incredible story about an incredible person. Even after all she achieved, she’s stayed so grounded and humble.

In your career so far, what are you most proud of? And, what would you change about your career if you could go back in time?
The first part of the question is easy, I’m most proud of all the students I’ve worked with over the years and all the great things they’ve gone on to do. I think I’ve had 14 students who have gone on to get their Ph.D.s or M.D.s. I’ve been able to mentor well over 50 students in the last couple of decades who have gone on to do fantastic things. As for the second part of the question, I don’t think I’d get into the time machine. It’s not necessarily that I feel like I did everything perfectly, it’s more a concern about the butterfly effect. If I changed something in the past, I could alter something that I’m immensely happy with right now.